Thursday 23 July 2009

Garden: might mean a small patch of barely cultivated ground – perhaps cleared from the forest. Does not necessarily contain flowers and might not have anywhere to sit. Saw a sign in the forest for a Vine Garden – meaning a small patch where a few vines were visible, twining and straggling between the trees.

There are regular buses that you book from the Bus Station, but if they’re full, then you can catch a taxi car/bus for about 50% more than the regular fare. They wait until enough people arrive for them to go. In Wuhan, the ordinary bus costs 2 RMB for any length of journey. But presumably because of competition rules, there are also privately owned mini-buses which run the same route and also cost 2 RMB. How you’d figure that out if you didn’t have the help of a local I have no idea.

Mostly I can understand what my guide, Shi Tao, says. Sometimes there are spectacular gaps in our understanding – but that’s probably true of most Chinese/English translations. We drove into Shennongjia Nature Reserve today and one of the top tourist spots was Shannong Valley but instead of heading down the mountain, we continued climbing into the cloud. When we arrived, I realised then that it was a view of the valley – which of course we couldn’t see.

Shannong Tan is a revered temple – huge stone face towering down. Two steep stairways lead to the top level: Chinese tradition says you should never retrace your steps, so we went up one side and down the other.

When we arrived in Muyuping at around 1.30pm the taxi driver recommended a hotel – always a bad mistake! But we were travel weary and I was very anxious to see if we could find Eh. So we checked into one of the dirtiest hotels in town for around 6 pounds a night. No AC (it’s about 90 today, but about 75-80 at night) and the toilet/shower room was disgusting. I don’t think the bedding had been changed in one of the twin beds and it was horribly damp. So we checked out at 7.30am and booked into a proper hotel for 11 pounds a night. Cheap by UK standards, but it all adds up very fast…

Department of Forestry, Muyuping:  Huge building with large lobby. Mostly unoccupied secretary in massive office directs us upstairs to a deserted landing. Dark wooden doors, all closed. No signs. We wander up one staircase several flights, and down another staircase several flights (careful not to retrace our footsteps!), ending in the vast basement where hundreds of glass cylinders containing plant specimens steeped in preservative cover most of the floor area. Three scientists/ researchers/ lab technicians are taking specimens out of a large cylinder, about 1m in diameter and 1.5m high and placing them individually in the smaller cylinders. They are wearing protective gloves and coats and it smells not of formaldehyde, but that kind of chemical smell.

This building was our first port of all here in Muyuping. I was hoping to get some assistance in entering the Nature Reserves – a map would be a nice start – and some means of identifying the rare plants there. We managed to get a few minutes with the one of Officials there, but without the requisite Letter of Introduction, we got nowhere. I could apply for a permit, but that might take days and would most likely be refused. So the only thing I can do is go into the Nature Reserve as a tourist – at a cost of 140 RMB a day or 14 pounds.

The 1,000-year old Emmenopterys henryi I had come all this way to see is at the entrance to Shannong Tan – just a few miles back down the road from Muyuping. So having drawn a blank at the Department of Forest, I decided not to waste any more time on officialdom and boost my spirits by finally seeing it in flower. We walked there, arriving at around 6.30 pm – it was much further than we thought – only to find that this grand old specimen had already finished flowering!!! There were about 3 or four inflorescences left on the top-most branches and I managed several photos – but certainly couldn’t paint it as it’s next to a busy highway (had to lean over the rail as vehicles whizzed by tooting their horns) and down a deep gully. Sadly I don’t think any of my photos will be very sharp as the light was poor and there were constant vibrations on the bridge.

We were exhausted when we got back to Muyuping at around 8.30pm and sank down on a plastic stool outside the nearest foodstall and sank a beer.

Next morning (after checking out from grotty hotel) we took a bus to Shannong Tan where there are two trees probably about 50 years old. Hadn’t realised it’s dioecious – there were some old seed pods from last year and apparently it did flower earlier, but scientists came and snipped off the branch for scientific research! Just my luck.

Scotty’s a research student from Wuhan Botanical Gardens whose expertise is Kiwi fruits and their evolution. Bizarrely, I’ve been invited by one of his colleagues who I’ve never met to got for a few days to a Kiwi fruit research station in Sichuan province. There are up-to-20 different Kiwi fruit species so instead of bashing my head against a brick wall trying to find Henry plants, maybe I should become a specialist in painting Kiwi fruits! I’ve missed the flowering season, so perhaps I could come back next year for those – with my official Letter of Introduction, of course!

The eclipse yesterday morning was Amazing!!!! The sun just seemed to lose it’s power gradually – like someone had put a neutral density filter over it – and everyone in Muyuping was getting very excited, out in the streets looking at the start of the eclipse through anything from medical x-ray plates (sections of someone’s brain!), the floppy film from inside a disc, arc welding helmets etc. We saw some of the best stuff reflected in a dark bowl of water on the pavement – and children were playing with mirrors shining the crescent shape of the sun onto the side of a building. There was a wonderful atmosphere. Then we hopped into a little six-seater minibus to Shannong Tan (15 mins by transport, hours by foot as experienced the other night!) and got there just as the power was really ebbing from the sun. The shadows of leaves took on a crescent shape and we saw the whole eclipse and the diamond ring effect.

I was disappointed that we couldn’t get into the surrounding countryside from Shannong Tan holy mountain, despite clambering up winding paths leading through a number of farmsteads. The understorey is quite thick and it’s just impossible to access. Very hot and sticky, we hopped on a passing bus back to Muyuping for Plan B. I think there are going to be a lot of those on this expedition.

This morning we rented a car to take us into the Shennongjia National Nature Reserve for about 20 pounds for the day. Half an hour driving up narrow, steep and winding road, climbing all the way – overcast with a haze flattening distant views of forested peaks. Overtaking, horns warning, on tight, blind bends, weaving in and out, passing slow lumbering lorries bringing construction material to the massive new commercial developments at the entrance and within the park. Held up by an accident on one of the bends on the way back. All the vehicles cut the corners – but they shouldn’t both do it at the same time.

First stop at the tourist centre we managed to find a forest trail that took us up into the hills. It was finally bliss to be in the natural environment amongst the trees with a ground flora reminiscent of thick English woodlands. Back in the car we drove ever upwards to the next stop – a spur off the main road dead-ending at a waterfall. It had started to rain. We walked up the steep steps and into virgin forest – well, as much as it could be considering the number of tourists that descend on the place. But again it was great to feel so close to nature – and out of the heat. But it wasn’t long before the rain really started to tip down and the temperature dropped to around 60 degrees F. By the time we’d walked back to the car we were in very low visibility and it was getting to be much less fun. I’d taken quite a few photos of the plant species I’d seen in the forest, but again hadn’t had a chance to paint anything. And now it was quite impossible.

So, starving hungry, cold and wet, we called it a day and headed back down the mountain for a massive meal in dripping Muyuping, downloaded the photos, and here I am at the internet cafe winding up this long missive at 9.30pm.

Tomorrow morning catching bus down to Badong where I will make one last attempt to see Emmenopterys henryi in the Hubei province. Failing that, will console myself with a trip up the Yangtze to see one or two of the smaller gorges and then back to the furnace that is Wuhan.